Protectors of the forest

Saara adivasis in Orissa have undertaken measures to conserve forest wealth

By S K Patanaik, S K Patanaik
Published: Tuesday 15 May 2001

Protectors of the forest

INDIA might be the software superpower but its remote villages still remain caught in a time warp where the effects of modernistion have not yet filtered down. Even after 54 years of independence, the rhetoric of development and conservation rings hollow without the people's participation in development schemes. Here in village Pandalama, 60 kilometres away from Bhubaneshwar, the Saara adivasis undertook forest conservation. They had to protect their resources fromgreedy intruders.
Nothing positive The native Saara tribe of Pandalama village was always in the grip of difficulties with poverty being a permanent adversary. Due to dearth of housing, they established themselves in three hamlets namely Pandlama Adivasi Purana Sahi, Biswanathpur and Durgapalli. Their life was a series of negatives. They had no landed property they could call their own. There was no scope of employment. There was no provision for their health or education. Their was a Sevasharm school run by a tribal welfare department at Pandalama. but its sole attraction has been the midday meal provision.

The women used go to a nearby forest to collect dry leaves, which were sold at Rs 8 per bundle. The male members migrated to Jankia district in search of livelihood leaving their children behind.

To add to the troubles, caste drived a wedge even among the tribals. The bone of contention between the touchable and untouchable tribes was the denuded forest. Exploiting the tribal disunity a forest track near Gahirgadia village became the focus of plunderers. The intruders wanted to plunder the forest in connivance with forest department officials. Rising to the occasion, the villagers of Pandalama Adivasi Sahi thwarted their attempts.
The turning point Awareness among the villagers has led to the formation of 'Vana Sanrakhyana Samiti'. Conservation of the sal wood forests is assimilated into the lives of the tribal folk.

It is democracy at the grassroots. Fifteen executive body members have elected Krupasindhu Behera as the President and Raghunath Behera as the secretary. Then villagers are guarding the forest zealously. The adult male members aredivided into 12 groups. There are daily two shifts -- 6 am to noon and from noon to 6 pm. At night information is the most effective weapon against intruders. In case of any news about intruders the villagers collectively rush to the spot and deal with the situation. The thumb rule is simple. Forests are their legacy and intruders are to be punished. The Saara tribe has also formed a self-help group where they collect a handful of rice or Rs 20 for the common fund.
Able leadership This unique experiment coupled with their self-designed rules and regulations has opened a new chapter in the annals of community participation. Bubbling with new confidence the villagers formed a regular committee in the nearby High School and took an oath to conserve their own forest.

The neglected, decried, socially discriminated Saara adivasis have been guided under the leadership of Surech Ch Patanaik, an advocate turned social activist. He is also secretary to a voluntary organisation niccid operating in Pandalama.
Disadvantage tribals The struggle was far from easy. The adjacent villagers of Punicha embroiled them in a dispute over revenue landwhere their forest was raised. The dispute ultimately, required the intervention of the police officials. In 1995 there was an agreement with the Government regarding joint forest management. Yet again in 1997 there was a tussle between Pandalama and Punicha villagers but was soon resolved.

In-spite of the ups and downs the tribals of Pandalama have successfully managed the forests. Today however, their future is in jeopardy with the proposal of amending the Fifth Schedule of the Indian Constitution. The move may take away the constitutional rights of the tribal communities over the natural resources in the scheduled area. The government has been a silent spectator to the tribe's agony. If the amendment is moved the government will be responsible for their alienation as well.

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